Advancing PEWI: An ecosystem service and economic outcomes simulator for agricultural and natural resource education

Valek, Robert
Major Professor
Lisa Schulte Moore
Committee Member
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Natural Resource Ecology and Management

Land use decisions involving ecosystem service and economic indicators play out across the globe on a daily basis. People in Ecosystems/Watershed Integration (PEWI) is a watershed-scale educational simulator that harnesses substantial scientific research about these ecosystem service indicators to project their resulting values based on user input watershed designs, but previously had not accounted for economic factors. I created a comprehensive economics module within the application with five results graphics and an expandable costs table with summary and line-item detail to fill this gap and make the PEWI user experience more realistic. PEWI v2 established a solid scientific framework for simulating land use ecosystem service indicator impacts in the Upper Midwest. The most common criticism from users and practitioners alike, however, was its lack of economic indicators and analysis. Behind the scenes, the code was poorly optimized and in need of both significant user interface and code improvements. Addressing both of these points within the scope of my program would have been impossible alone, so I developed a plan to hire a team of undergraduate software development or coding interns each summer. This endeavor demonstrates how, with appropriate planning and project management skills, university-bound projects are uniquely positioned to benefit from an abundance of bright minds and rising talent within their own institutions. Next, I gathered personal and user feedback to consider and prioritize potential interface improvements and new modules, most notably the economics module. Over the next four years I implemented our development strategy, with development objectives solidifying at the start of each summer development cycle and the project management methodology evolving constantly to meet the needs of an academia-based small-scale project relying on relatively inexperienced interns. By the end of my program, four summer development cycles had produced two new public-facing PEWI iterations and a third, representing the largest leap in application improvements, was in the testing and debugging stage. With the new economics module, PEWI is uniquely positioned to assist users in learning about tradeoffs and synergies among ecosystem service and economic outcomes within land use decision making. These topics are usually presented with one or two ecosystem service indicators at a time. Although simpler, this approach can leave curious students with unanswered questions about decisions’ impacts on other related indicators. By forecasting results for eight ecosystem service indicators, interacting with PEWI paints a vivid picture of these complex relationships and why land use decision making can be very complicated. The mental structures governing individual users’ decision-making paradigms have an opportunity to expand beyond simple linear relationships with one or two variables to highly non-linear relationships with eight, and suddenly placing land uses on a map can become more nuanced and intentional. In an effort to help demystify these relationships, I next turned PEWI’s ecosystem service and economic indicator modules into an optimization model that optimized for watershed profitability in numerous scenarios given a rotating set of ecosystem service indicator constraints. Based on increase classroom usage and continue support efforts, PEWI’s future looks promising. I see numerous opportunities for PEWI to inform landowners, land managers or renters, and policy makers on the intricate relationships at play when making land use decisions, and now with the addition of the economics module those discussions can become significantly more similar to actual decision they could find themselves making.